MAYBE PEOPLE in California can use Lifespring, est, gestalt therapy, primal scream and transcendental meditation.

But for those of us living in Washington, there is a better way to find nirvana. If you really want to salve your soul, file a lawsuit in the District of Columbia's Small Claims Court.

For 15 years I have lived in Washington, but Small Claims Court is a recent phenomenon in my life. Three times I have sued for damages in that court and three times I have never felt better afterwards.

I discovered Small Claims Court quite by accident. A major Washington trade association had refused to pay me $300 for an article they had published under my name. I protested for weeks that they owed me something, that they were violating a contract. Finally, they must have decided that the best way to get rid of the pest was with the usual smart remark, "Then why don't you go ahead and sue us."

More out of stupidity than anything else I asked where and they said, probably regretting it now, "In Small Claims Court."

I must admit that, after hearing horror stories of how corrupt and inefficient it was, the whole concept of dealing with the District judicial system had me intimidated.

But that all changed after I finally found the Small Claims Court hidden away in the basement of an immense courthouse building, across the street from the Judiciary Square Metro stop. Little did I realize that by paying only $2.67 (why that amount I still don't understand) to file a claim, you can change your life, yes, almost miraculously.

I don't brag about the outcome of this case, I give all credit to the court. Several days before my arguments were to be heard, a cashier's check arrived in the mail from that trade association, made out in my name for the exact sum of $300. Case closed, my faith in humanity and myself restored. Small Claims Court would never hear from me again.

But sinners are everywhere.

Next time -- when a certain international world airways lost my baggge for three days, practically forcing me to spend the first part of an important business trip in my underwear -- I didn't have to be told where to go. The airline's slick T.V. commercials, airing almost hourly, showed crack airline pilots at the controls, smiling flight attendants adjusting your pillow, and concerned reservation clerks who went out of their way to get you a lower airfare. The reality was it probably had expensive lawyers on retainer specially trained to handle crackpots like me.

First, however, I tried the civilized approach, asking politely for $389.50 in compensation from them for losing my baggage. This went ignored, as did followup letters. Finally, after my fifth letter, they responded, saying that "policy" prevented them from offering anything but an apology. My subsequent letter went unanswered, making me wonder why I had wasted all this time with them.

If what the airline wanted was to play hardball, that was fine with me. After all I now knew that the District of Columbia was on my side. So with a "see you in court," I filed the $389.50 damage suit, thinking later that maybe I should have asked for a little more.

Once again, however, the case never made it into court, because a money order arrived by Federal Express the night before the hearing, at 11:07 p.m. to be precise, made out in my name for $394.50. The five extra dollars beyond what I asked for, the airline said, was to cover what they termed my "inconvenience."

So of course I didn't scream, I didn't even get excited, in fact I smiled knowingly when, during last January's blizzard in Washington, the Capitol South subway station was turned into Hell's Kitchen waiting for the arrival of a Metrorail train heading in the direction of National Airport. The reason why I, along with the rest of the madding crowd, was fooled into sticking it out was because the Metro attendant in the kiosk kept announcing, "Don't lose hope, folks, a train is imminent. Thank you for your patience."

This announcement coincided with the flashing lights on the platform indicating that the train was heading into the station. But still nothing showed up, causing others around me to stomp on the platform, curse under their breaths, hyperventilate, and finally, to give up the ghost, stomping up the steps of the non-functioning escalator and leaving the station with a choice epithet for the Capitol South Metro attendant, who had something nice to say back.

Eventually, a train limped into the station, two hours later, jammed to the rafters. The end result of this nightmare was that I missed my flight out of town and had to spend the first part of my vacation standing in non-moving ticket lines, my clothes dripping wet. But still, despite all this, I stayed cool, because who needed to get mad when you could get even.

Once again, I took the polite approach with my letter to Metro asking for financial compensation, knowing of course how their form letter would answer.

I must say that I am satisfied with the outcome of my $189.25 damage suit against Metrorail even if I did not get exactly what I had asked for. What I did get, after the case was settled by a Small Claims Court mediator, was satisfaction in another direction. It included a $20 Metrorail pass, two farecards good for anywhere in the system, plus a written apology from the Metrorail public relations department expressing great sorrow about what had happened and promising that they would never do it again.

"We hope we can restore your faith in the Metrorail system," their letter read in part.

Yes, it all did feel like a religious experience, but what the Small Claims Court really restored was faith in myself and the system as a whole. It made me realize that Gandhi had indeed been right, you don't have to use violence to win your case.

Eric Green is a Washington writer.